A new wave of corruption scandals is building in Washington. Or, rather, we’re beginning to see the wave come ashore. This time, it’s Democrats washing up – Charlie Rangel, Maxine Waters and a host of other representatives up on ethical and possible criminal charges. Of course, corruption among government officials is as old as government itself. As the clichéd fable goes, a scorpion will sting no matter what he promised the frog.
It’s difficult to resist flogging the details of individual scandals, making this about the personal corruption of many Democrats in Congress. But Republicans would be smart to use these scandals to explain why big-government, Democratic policies foster a culture of corruption. Why progressive policies are, fundamentally, unethical.
A progressive government requires government officials to choose winners and losers. It mandates lawmakers to take from some and give to others. At the individual level, we call this corruption, and it’s illegal. When the government-at-large does it legislatively, it’s (usually) legal. At both levels it’s unethical.
For years it has been known that Maxine Waters has close financial ties to OneUnited bank – her husband was a director and each has owned large amounts of stock – speaks publicly in favor of the bank and has been critical of federal regulations. More recently the congresswoman scheduled a meeting between Treasury officials and executives of the OneUnited, shortly before the bank was awarded $12 million in TARP money. And a provision intended to help OneUnited was also included in the federal bailout bill.
It’s still unclear whether or not Rep. Waters is guilty of improperly using her congressional position for personal gain. There is, to say the least, a conflict of interest. It appears Waters was helping pick winners and losers – in which she would have been one of the winners. But this should not come as a surprise, however, considering she acted just as the federal government does every day.
Consider when the Obama administration took over GM in 2009 and favored the UAW (winners) at the expense of bondholders (losers). Or, what about last summer’s “Cash for Clunkers” program, in which the government took $4 billion from taxpayers (losers) to help the failing auto industry and individuals in the market for a new car at the time (winners).
The massive $700 billion TARP bill last fall? Failing banks (winners), financially sound banks (losers). The $787 billion economic stimulus bill? Municipal construction crews (winners), small businesses (losers); residents of public housing (winners), residents of middle-class housing (losers); “green home owners” (winners), regular home owners (losers)…and on and on. Last week the Senate debated The Disclose Act, which would have muzzled thousands of non-profit and for-profit entities (losers), while carving-out exemptions for political donations from big(ger) voices like the teacher’s unions and the NRA (winners). And of course there’s the whole world of government subsidies: Agribusiness (winners), family farms (losers); ethanol (winners), gasoline (losers).
The fact is a government that plays God, choosing who shall flourish and who shall fall, has made lawmakers particularly prone to ethical misconduct. James Madison warned of the threat of factions to the Union in Federalist Paper No. 10, reminding Americans, “it is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good.”
Indeed today Madison’s words seem prophetic. Government has grown so large – so intrusive – that interest groups abound, each currying favor from lawmakers like Waters, usually at the expense of others. “Draining the swamp” has to mean more than rhetoric and ethics committee hearings. Ridding Congress of its imperial sense of entitlement can only come about if Democrats and Republicans reconsider their progressive beliefs. Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters pulled the wool over the eyes of the American people for years because they are part of a government where financial and social engineering are standard practice.
It’s true, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary,” but it’s equally true that government must seek “to control itself.” The early republic teaches us, smaller government doesn’t eliminate bad people, but it does greatly reduce the opportunity for bad behavior.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is managing partner of Evolving Strategies and a senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum.